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‘Conscience is clear’: N.B. tourism minister, deputy expense $22,500 for Euro trip

FREDERICTON — New Brunswick’s tourism minister has remained defiant in the face of criticism from opposition members who have questioned the benefits of a weeklong trip to Europe that cost the province more than $22,500.

Tammy Scott-Wallace faced almost two days of questioning this week in the legislature about her time overseas.

“My conscience is clear when it comes to my expenses around these trips,” she said during a session of the legislature committee on budget estimates. 

Scott-Wallace and her deputy, Yennah Hurley, along with two other staff members, travelled to the United Kingdom and France from Sept. 8 to 15. They visited Stonehenge, the British Museum, Windsor Castle and the Palace of Versailles, among other sites.

The Progressive Conservative minister billed the government $10,199 for the trip, and her deputy submitted receipts worth $12,328.

Hurley’s receipts show $3,230 for her stay at the Trafalgar St. James hotel in London, and $2,286 for her accommodations at Hotel Lumen in Paris. The luxury hotel London charges more than $1,000 per night; Hotel Lumen, boasting a location in the “heart of Paris,” costs more than $600 per night. 

She also billed $560 for Eurostar train tickets, $24 for a tour of the British Museum and $92 for a ride on the London Eye — a ferris wheel that overlooks the River Thames.

Scott-Wallace’s trips were described on the expense report as “Tourism Mission — Europe.”

Isabelle Thériault, the Liberals’ tourism critic, called the trip “a vacation with a few meetings here and there to justify it.”

“What did it give the taxpayers of New Brunswick, that you went there for eight days?” she asked. 

“It’s really not clear what you did, except visit some places. Like, you have to face the music.”

Scott-Wallace said the province secured contracts during her time in the United Kingdom and France, but the government didn’t immediately respond to questions about the nature and value of those contracts. 

“That’s incredibly important,” the minister said. “It’s a good day’s work and it’s a good seven days’ work for me. I’ll tell you that.”

The tours of Windsor Castle and the Palace of Versailles, she said, allowed her to learn “best practices” about “built heritage.”

New Brunswick, she said, has similar sites to the U.K. and France but on a smaller scale. For instance, while on a tour of the British Museum, she learned the institution offers abbreviated 45-minute tours to cruise ship passengers. The same kind of shortened tours, she said, could be added to the offering at the New Brunswick Museum, which is under renovation.

Scott-Wallace told the legislature that her trip to Europe in September led to a 23 per cent year-over-year increase in 2023 in the number of tourists to the province from the United Kingdom and a 12 per cent increase in tourists from France. She did not give details, however, about why she thought her visits sparked a boost in the popularity of New Brunswick among the English and French.

In an appearance before the budget estimates committee on Wednesday, Premier Blaine Higgs said the government would re-evaluate policies surrounding such overseas visits.

Scott-Wallace and Hurley’s Europe trip wasn’t approved in advance because the minister said such expenses are “budgeted for.”

René Legacy, Liberal critic for the Department of Finance and Treasury, questioned Higgs about the trip and the expenses.

In response, the premier said that just because such expenses were incurred in the past, doesn’t mean they should be repeated.

”I’m asking questions too,” Higgs said. “I want to understand what our policies are because sometimes policies can be better defined so that we all ensure that taxpayers’ money is used to the most efficient manner. We’re going to ask those questions.”

The ministers’ travel expenses weren’t the only bills that attracted the ire of the opposition.

Hurley billed the province $77,710 last year, including $15,000 for a real estate commission, $3,550.67 for movers and $770.50 in legal fees. She also charged the government 68 cents for travelling on the Fundy Trail, and 83 cents on Ministers Island near the town of St. Andrews.

Green Leader David Coon questioned the Realtor and moving expenses. “The taxpayers of this province should not be paying the Realtor costs of public servants when they sell their homes,” he said.

Scott-Wallace defended her deputy’s moving expenses, saying government employees who are transferred are allowed to recover moving costs.

“This is a policy that has been accepted and used for years with governments of both colours,” she said about the Tories and Liberals.

Higgs, later in the day, clarified that such expenses are reserved for senior government employees, adding that the practice would be reviewed.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 25, 2024.

Hina Alam, The Canadian Press

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